Drop-in centre for sex-trade workers ramps up services

Kate Gibson needs a lot of advice.

Kate Gibson needs a lot of advice.

After spending years helping to run a widely-respected drop-in service for sex-trade workers on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside on the thinnest of shoestrings, the executive director of WISH has been told the centre will get an extra $750,000 per year from the provincial government.

The money was announced earlier this week by Justice Minister Shirley Bond, about an hour after the commissioner of an inquiry into Vancouver’s missing women made funding for an around-the-clock drop-in centre a key recommendation.

“There will be more meals at whatever time of day that we’re open,” said Gibson, listing off some of the changes.

“Obviously overnight there will be meals and snacks. So it will mean a substantial increase in our food budget. Obviously we don’t have staff, so there will be a large ramping up of staff to cover those shifts overnight, and the facility will have to be managed in a new way because it will have a lot more use.”

The drop-in centre opened in 1987 with a base in a Downtown Eastside church and moved in 2009 to its own facility. The centre began helping just a few women a night, but that has grown to between 150 to 200 women every night.

In May, commissioner Wally Oppal told the inquiry a 24-hour centre for sex-trade workers was a “no brainer.”

Dave Dickson, who was a well-known beat cop in the Downtown Eastside and later served as a sex-work liaison officer for the Vancouver police, told the inquiry that WISH had a proven track record and should be the model for such a service.

WISH provides hot meals, showers, nursing care, referrals to other programs and safety notices, such as bad dates. Several of serial killer Robert Pickton’s victims used WISH’s services.

Pickton was convicted of killing six women, but the remains or DNA of 33 women was found on his Port Coquitlam, B.C., pig farm. He trolled the Downtown Eastside for his victims.

But the centre only had the funding to operate from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. every night of the week on a budget of about $320,000 a year. Less than half of it came from government sources.

WISH received about $80,000 a year from the City of Vancouver and another $60,000 from the provincial government.

The rest of the drop-in centre’s budget came from other community groups, religious organizations and individual donors.

The windfall Monday more than doubles the centre’s previous funding.

“It’s not the complete answer, obviously, it’s not,” Oppal said in an interview Wednesday.

“But really what it is is a place where (sex-trade workers) can seek refuge. It’s a place where they can find security.”

Gibson said she had no advance warning the money was going to be granted to WISH and she’s not sure when the ramped-up services will start.

Bond said in a statement details of the expanded services WISH will provide are still being hammered out.

The minister said WISH was chosen because of it’s well established track record.

“It was determined that they were in the best position to address the need.”

Bond said her organization is speaking to other service providers and also to the women for whom the drop-in centre is intended — those who use it now and those who haven’t been able to use it because its hours of operation have been limited.

WISH was among the groups that was given standing at the inquiry, but denied government funding for legal representation so the group did not participate in the formal hearings.

Gibson said the recommendations in Oppal’s 1,400 page report are far-reaching, but she said they won’t mean anything if they are not followed through.

She said the report should serve as bedrock for calls for a national public inquiry into the plague of murdered and missing aboriginal women across Canada.

The Assembly of First Nations has made such a call, as has a variety of other groups and the federal Opposition NDP.

But Oppal wasn’t convinced another costly inquiry is needed to point to problems he’s already examined.

“If we think we can learn something more by having a national inquiry, it might be helpful. But many of the issues that we dealt with, really, can be extrapolated on the national level.”